Archive for March, 2009

My Essay on All About My Mother on PopMatters

filmthumbiconPopMatters celebrates its 10th anniversary this week with a sprawling multi-part feature on 62 of the most memorable films of 1999. I happily seized the opportunity to write about Almodóvar’s All About My Mother for the site, and you can read the resulting essay here (though you have to scroll down past the piece on Bringing Out the Dead to see it).


Kafka International Airport

Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport

Garage rock glory

guitarthumbicon Back in my college days, I played in two bands (or three, if you count the Velvet Underbelly, a one-off Velvet Underground cover band for a party). The first, This Many Boyfriends Club, started performing in public before most of us knew how to play our instruments. We wrote punks songs about Dungeons & Dragons (“Player’s Handbook”) and Amy Fisher, and covered tunes by bands like the Vaselines. At our first big gig, I broke strings on three different guitars, including one belonging to the headlining act. At our second gig, we decided to take a band picture in front of a brick wall in the alley—but it was a chilly night, and we didn’t realize until a couple of songs into the set that our guitars and bass had become badly detuned out in the cold air. The second band, called the Love Bees, set out with the explicit intention of being a garage rock band—we’d all been listening to Rhino’s fantastic Nuggets boxed set, and as a result we’d fallen in love with bands like the Seeds, the Sonics, and the Electric Prunes. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of our original intentions and got a bit more ambitious—which probably wasn’t the best idea, really, since most of us still weren’t proficient at playing our instruments.

More recently we’ve joked that if the Love Bees ever reform, we’ll probably be a free jazz act, given how our musical interests have evolved in the years since. That said, there’s no doubt at all that garage rock spirit resides inside me still—and it’s that part of me that’s head-over-heels right now for Fuckbook, the new garage rock covers album from Yo La Tengo. Officially, the name of the band this time out is “Condo Fucks”—a reference to the hilarious fake album advertisements in the liner notes of YLT’s 1997 record I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. The album title is also a play on the name of an earlier YLT covers album, Fakebook.

Yo La Tengo has always been a great covers band—their fuzzed-out take on the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda” is a pure pleasure, and their version of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” for the I’m Not There soundtrack offers an uncanny impersonation of the sound of a mid-60s Dylan record. On Fuckbook, they’re out to have a blast—it’s a record that perfectly captures the rough-edged glory of good old-fashioned garage rock.

For a veteran band like Yo La Tengo, the point of going garage lies in recapturing the same spirit of naive enthusiasm felt by three or four kids pounding out barely-recognizable versions of “Satisfaction” while their parents plug their ears and roll their eyes. It’s about feeling the uncomplicated, unsophisticated, and absolutely sincere love of rock and roll that even the most jaded and sophisticated contemporary indie rockers must have at once point felt themselves. And it’s a type of music that’s especially close to my heart, as it’s exactly the kind of album that the Love Bees would have loved to have made—if we’d had the slightest idea of what we were doing, that is, or if we’d been able to play in any key other than C, D, or G.

Fuckbook by Condo Fucks

Fuckbook by Condo Fucks

Of course, part of the pleasure of Fuckbook also lies in the fact that Yo La Tengo are not, in fact, a garage band: the false start on “So Easy Baby” is fully intentional, as are the amusing count-ins (including one going down from 9 to 2) on several different tracks. Also, sometimes Ira really lets loose, unleashing some finely-calibrated noise that would be far out of reach for a garage guitarist who only has three chords and the truth to rely on.

But, best not to think about any of that too much—Fuckbook isn’t an album that requires analysis. Instead, you just need to remember the love for rock and roll in your heart, put the record on, and turn it up to eleven.

PS: Congratulations to former Love Bee and This Many Boyfriends Club singer/guitarist/trumpeter Jim Gill and his wife Becky on the birth of James Stanley Gill yesterday. And actually, make that Dr. Jim Gill: congratulations on your successful defense, as well.

Canonized alive

booksthumbicon When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, she was 62 years old—no spring chicken, but still a writer with a long career ahead of her. After receiving the Nobel, Morrison experienced literary deification, and in the sixteen long years since, she has been routinely accorded the same kind of reverence ordinarily reserved for long-dead writers whose canonical position is beyond dispute. Most critical discussion of her fiction now takes an assumption of greatness as its starting point. When a new Toni Morrison novel arrives, the question for reviewers and scholars is never, “Is it good?”—its quality is a given. Rather, the task is to fit the new work into the context of Morrison’s previous accomplishments and of great literature more broadly. Morrison, in short, has been canonized alive.

Given this fact, Morrison no doubt makes a tempting target for critics in search of an exalted literary reputation to deflate—the harder they come, the harder they fall. But actual attempts at Morrison takedowns are quite rare. The reason? Part of it might be her status as a beloved living legend within American literature. More fundamentally, though, I think it’s simply that her books are fully worthy of the extraordinary acclaim they’ve received. Also, despite having completed an apotheosis at such an early age, Morrison has never rested on her laurels. Her new novel, A Mercy, published late in 2008, is yet another worthy entry to an astoundingly rich body of work.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

In the novel, Morrison interweaves the stories and voices of several characters—a slave girl; an Anglo-Dutch trader; his wife; and their orphaned Native American servant, among others—who are attempting to forge lives for themselves in the New World in the 1680s. At 167 pages, the novel is slim and dense, finding room for several involving storylines while also making nuanced, intelligent, and morally powerful arguments about the nature of freedom and bondage, the formation of the American character, and the American relationship to the land. All the while, Morrison’s language is intoxicating in its sounds and rhythms, routinely achieving beautifully poetic effects without sacrificing story or sense.

Here’s one brief illustrative passage, in which Jakob, the trader, ponders making a move to Barbados in the hope of achieving greater fortune and success:

Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars. The silver that glittered there was not at all unreachable. And that wide swath of cream pouring through the stars was his for the tasting.

What I love about this passage is not only its surface gorgeousness, but also the ways in which Morrison uses it to breathe new life into an old, overfamiliar metaphor. This is far from the first time that the stars have been used as a metaphor for hope; the conceit is so familiar that it found its way into Disney movies generations ago, and even then it was far from fresh. But here Morrison does something remarkable: the stars become “cream” for “the tasting,” and Jakob’s hope becomes an embodied hunger, rather than an abstract gaze heavenward. This idea forges a connection with the metaphor’s ancient heart, reconnecting the dots between the hungry, restless, unsettled feeling in Jakob’s gut and the milky splash of stars above. At the same time, Morrison quietly achieves some distance from Jakob’s perspective, noting the vulgarity of the stars, and thus calling into question both the ethics of his hopes and the fact that he has no real reason to believe that he might succeed. And so Morrison also uncovers another aspect of the metaphor that contemporary readers rarely give any thought: the idea of the heavens as existing on an altogether different scale than human hopes, and the idea that the stars reveal just how small a man who wishes upon them can be.

Earlier on the same page, Morrison achieves a very different, and startling effect, using a far more novel metaphor. Jakob has suffered the deaths of several young children, and when he finds his way to the seashore in a contemplative, hopeful mood, this is how Morrison describes it:

He gazed at the occasional dapple of starlight on the water, then bent down and placed his hands in it. Sand moved under his palms; infant waves died above his wrists, soaking the cuffs of his sleeves.

The vast possibilities of the ocean (and of the New World for which he has crossed it) reach Jakob only in the form of “infant waves” dying in his hands. It’s a grim, startling passage, and one made all the more sad by the fact that Jakob seems scarcely aware of the fragility of his hopes, and even less aware of how the life he dreams of forging for himself might ruin the lives and hopes of those under his power.

Morrison is also capable of imbuing her writing with intense and beautifully evoked sensuality. Here’s a passage coming only a few pages later, from the point of view of Florens, a slave who has fallen for a free black blacksmith:

There will never be enough time to look how you move. Your arm goes up to strike iron. You drop to one knee. You bend. You stop to pour water first on the iron then down your throat. Before you know I am in the world I am already kill by you. My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break.

Passages like these defeat my critical faculties completely—all I can do is sit back and admire them. Morrison is an engrossing storyteller and a prose stylist of the first order, and she writes with both great sensitivity and thunderous moral authority. I know this is news to precisely no one, but here I’ll say it again: Toni Morrison is a great writer, and she has fully earned her early induction into the canon.

A.C. Newman and Neko Case, or, the ironist and the tornado

guitarthumbicon Get Guilty, the second solo album from head New Pornographer A.C. (aka Carl) Newman, out this past January, opens with mock-grandiose percussion and guitar, undercutting an arena-scale sound with undercurrents of knowing goofiness. “Of course I’m only kidding,” the big rhythm and plodding chords say. “I’m far too sophisticated to be able to record an arrangement like this in earnest.” When the vocals of come in, the lyrics preemptively deconstruct any meaning that the song (called “There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve”) might have subsequently developed: “There are maybe ten or twelve things that I can teach you,” Newman sings. “After that, well, I think you’re on your own / And that wasn’t the opening line, that was the tenth or twelfth / Make of that what you will.” In other words: I don’t know much, and even if I did know anything, I’m certainly not going bother trying to put it in a song.

As far as Newman’s lyrics go, these lines are relatively transparent and substantive—more often, he takes an approach that doesn’t even admit the possibility of literal meaning or sense. Words seem to be chosen for their sound, and more importantly, for the mood they create. As a songwriter, Newman has neither a confessional impulse nor any message he intends to convey. Instead, his songs and arrangements strive to tap into the wordless, meaningless heart of pop music. He wants to give listeners an unadulterated fix of pop’s tuneful sugar and aching teenage longing. He wants to return us all to age fourteen, lying on the bedroom floor with headphones on, when we could still listen to a record with fresh, inexperienced, mostly innocent ears, admitting rhythms and melodies deep inside our awkward bodies while being deeply, uncomprehendingly moved by the expression of desires and needs we were only beginning to understand. In pop music, the words are never really the point—even for the very best lyricists, they’re rarely more than icing on the cake.

Newman possesses extraordinary gifts as a tunesmith, and has a very keen ear for how to wring emotional responses by making reference to past styles and genres at just the right moments in the arrangements of his songs. When he brings the full force of his craft to bear—as he does on several of the tunes on Get Guilty, like “Prophets,” with its aching, tuneful chorus, and “The Collected Works,” which successfully taps into some kind of primal head-nodding, fist-pumping impulse deep inside us all—the results are both engaging and very fun.

But just as often, Newman loses me—and it’s almost always because of things like the self-conscious ironies in the album’s opening tune. They’re like bites of the fruit of the tree of knowledge: if you gobble them up, you’ll be wiser and know the truth, but you will no longer be able to receive pop music with the same kind of wide-open, unquestioning, unthinking joy. I’m sure for many listeners, it’s exactly this knowing self-consciousness that makes Newman’s tunes approachable—they like having their sophistication complimented, and enjoy feeling like they’re in on the joke. They understand that pop music is full of lies. Now that they’re a little older and have seen a thing or two, they know better than to trust pop’s adolescent dreaminess. Songs that go after that teenage feeling in earnest are embarrassing, a bit hard to approach. They come a bit too close to actually capturing what it feels like to be a teenager—and nobody would want that, right?

Incidentally, “That Teenage Feeling” happens to be the title of a song by Newman’s fellow New Pornographer Neko Case. Case’s lyrics are often slippery, too, but unlike Newman, she does not indulge in irony for the sake of creating studied, self-conscious emotional distance. This particular song (from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood), has an unabashed, unconcealed emotionalism. It is in no way naive, but at the same time it hungers to capture the all-encompassing power of teenage emotion. Case does not nod and wink at us; instead, her big voice soars over the chorus. And though the stuttering rhythm guitar incorporates the old-fashioned pulse of a teenybopper ballad from the fifties, this is not an ironic gesture: she really means it, and she’s not afraid to admit it.

This is, in a nutshell, why I think Case is a vastly more compelling songwriter and performer than Newman. Newman wants us to laugh a little at the silliness and artificiality of popular music, while also indulging our emotional response to the pop song form. Ultimately, though, he doesn’t want us to feel anything in earnest; earnestness is always suspect for him, and must be undermined. Case, on the other hand, wants to use all the tools of a knowing, self-conscious adult musician to communicate ideas and emotions with her songs. She wants to move her listeners without condescending or making a joke of it.

On her new album Middle Cyclone, Case again brings her tremendously powerful voice to bear on a collection of structurally adroit songs thrumming with mystery and myth. Her opening move blows Newman’s away. In “This Tornado Loves You,” she takes the voice of a tornado to express the frustrations of a hurt and angry but devoted lover: “My love I am the speed of sound / I left them motherless, fatherless / Their souls dangling inside out from their mouths / But it’s never enough / I want you.” This is an audacious move for a songwriter, casting her love as having the force of a natural disaster—audacious, because it’s an open admission of real feeling, and though there’s some humor to it, the intent is deadly serious. She leaves no shelter of insincerity for herself to take cover in; as an artist, she puts herself right out there, undefended before her listeners. She goes on: “Carved your name across three counties / Grounded in with bloody hides / Their broken necks will lie in the ditch until you stop it, stop this madness / I want you.” A minute in, Case has already treated us to an inventive, appealing premise executed with uncommonly rich and vivid imagery. But when the bridge comes, the song becomes more complicated, taking on an unambiguous, open sadness. “I miss, I miss, I miss,” Case repeats, as if she’s stuck on the word or the feeling, unable to get past. “I miss how you sigh yourself to sleep / When I bring the springtime across your sheets.” You can feel the strength of her speaker’s love and longing; Case makes you believe that these emotions contain the force of a tornado, and will not be contained.

The rest of Middle Cyclone is similarly successful: Case draws on imagery of weather, nature, and animals to spin out moving, wise, and enthralling songs about human relationships, and the relationships between humans and the natural world. Her voice is an astounding instrument, and it dominates the whole of the record. Case puts most singers to shame with both the raw power and the nuanced subtlety of her performances.

Neko Case writes songs for adults. It’s not that she fails to understand the artificiality and manipulations and falsehoods of pop songs; rather, she recognizes that perpetually pointing out this fact (as Newman does) will only take your art so far. Ultimately, Newman’s brand of knowingness strikes me as deeply cynical: it’s a rejection of the idea that popular music has the capacity to genuinely move a sophisticated listener with the same kind of immediacy and force with which a pop song moves a teenager. For me, performers like Case make an extremely powerful argument to the contrary. Her music is both sophisticated and sincere, and goes right for the heart without feeling the need to resort to any distancing poses.

Listening to Case sing on New Pornographers songs (written by Newman, not Case) is a fascinating experience: she belts Newman’s lyrics out impressively enough, but rarely achieves anything resembling the emotional power of her vocals on her own records. Their collaboration is at its best on Mass Romantic, where the rough-and-ready arrangements offer less space for irony and allusion. Songs like “Letter to an Occupant” or “Mass Romantic” create a happy medium between Newman’s aesthetic and Case’s: there’s still little effort to make the songs mean much of anything, but they’re at the same time full of straightforward power pop life. Newman’s very best tune, however, is probably “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” which doesn’t feature Case, and is still played for a joke, but also contains a buoyant sense of boozy joy and a sharp edge of bitterness. In other words: “Descent” actually has subject matter, and Newman more or less treats that subject matter as if it might have some genuine meaning and emotional resonance. I wish Newman would put his considerable skills as a craftsman of melodies and arrangements to this kind of use more often. I like his records well enough, but they very rarely move me.

John Carroll Oates and Janet Franzen

In the Guardian, AJ Flood points to a Slate article by Katha Pollitt about A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter’s big new critical/historical survey of the lives, work, and reception of American women writers. I’ve just recently begun reading Showalter’s book, so I won’t comment on it here. But, like Flood, I was struck by one particular passage in Pollitt’s piece about Showalter’s book:

Many women writers have complained that fiction by women is undervalued because we undervalue the domestic and the personal as opposed to big manly subjects like war and whaling. It’s an important point, but I think there’s something deeper going on. In fact, there are men who write about intimate life and women who take on big public subjects. More different than the books themselves is the gendered framing of how we read them. Nobody says Henry James is a less ambitious writer because he wrote The Portrait of a Lady and not The Portrait of a Sea Captain. If The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn’t quite come off? If the most prolific serious American writer was John Carroll Oates, would critics be so disturbed by the violence in his fiction?

This is a very sharp observation on Pollitt’s part. I’ve long been bothered by the way many critics tend to dismiss (or simply fail to notice) the grand (even awe-inspiring) scope of Joyce Carol Oates’s literary ambition, and I don’t doubt that gender plays at least some role in this. Oates is routinely bashed for being prolific, rather than admired for her vast range and phenomenal energy—whereas Philip Roth’s late-career burst of productivity has been widely hailed as a renaissance, and has cemented his place in the American literary canon.

Further, I think Pollitt is right on to point to the violence in Oates’s work as another potential source of the problem—it’s not very ladylike, after all, for a writer to devote so many pages to seriously elucidating a red-meat, manly theme like the role that violence plays in shaping American lives, identities, relationships, and culture (which is in fact one of the major preoccupations of Oates’s fiction). But in contrast, few critics blinked at the horrific violence that is the central concern of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. (In a side note, I also find it fascinating that no one has taken Bolaño to task for writing from what I think can only be understood as a feminist perspective on the nature and causes of violence against women. It is clearly men who are responsible for the violence in 2666, and Bolaño strongly suggests that the many female victims in the book would have been less vulnerable if it hadn’t been for the fact that both the (male) murderers and the (male-dominated) state failed to take women seriously as individuals with rights and ethical stature; because the deaths of women (and especially poor women) are seen as not especially significant, it becomes that much easier for men to kill them. I wonder what the reception would have been if 2666 had been written by a woman—would critics have objected to the uncompromising stridency of the author’s feminist perspective?)

I suspect it’s not only the violence in Oates’s work that strikes some critics as unseemly, but also her absolute fearlessness about confronting dark events and emotions with both honesty and empathy. The result is sometimes unsettling in its intimacy, and also exhausting in its raw, searing energy. These are qualities that are often praised in male writers, but perhaps Oates’s gender leads some readers to dismiss the great intensity of her work as mere feminine emotionalism run amok. Never mind the serious intellectual (and especially philosophical) heft of much of her work—better to keep her safely in her place as just another sentimental scribbling woman.

As for Janet Franzen: again, I think Pollitt is right on here. The Corrections is far from a bad novel, but it is very difficult to imagine that the same book would have been seen as so earth-shatteringly important if it had been written by a woman. Yet, even before the infamous Oprah incident, Franzen’s book enjoyed an astounding amount of critical attention—I bought it on the day of its release (placing a real strain on my post-college part-time bookstore clerk’s wages) expecting something akin to the next Moby Dick, given all the wild, unadulterated praise the novel had received—but instead I found it to be nothing more than yet another solid but unexceptional contemporary novel, and certainly nothing to get all worked up about. I’ve experience similar disappointments when reading the work of a number of other recent literary “it” boys—some of them write good books, and some write bad ones, but there have been very few (like Bolaño) whose work actually lives up to all the hype.

At the very least, critics could start creating similar buzz and excitement over books by a few women writers every now and again. A handful of women writers of sterling, well-established reputations (Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison) tend to be treated with great seriousness and respect by critics—but very, very few seem to be given the kind of breathless and rapturous reception that mediocre (or worse) books by Franzen, Safran Foer, and their ilk enjoy on a routine basis. It is all too rare to read a review like the one that The New York Times ran on Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which recognizes the boldness, ambition, and importance of a new novel by a younger woman, and treats the book in much the same way a critic would consider the work of a man like Franzen. But you’ll never guess who wrote that particular review. All right, I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t John Carroll Oates.

Colson Whitehead and the perpetually reinvented city

Few novels I’ve read in recent years have impressed me as deeply as Colson Whitehead’s highly inventive debut The Intuitionist, and I’m very much looking forward to the April release of his new novel Sag Harbor. In the meantime, I’m catching up on some of his other work, including The Colossus of New York, a slim volume of essays and observations about the city published in 2003. In the book’s opening piece, “City Limits,” Whitehead does a beautiful job of evoking one part of the experience of living in a big city:

No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. That before the internet cafe plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.

I moved to Chicago in 2001, but it did not become my home until I’d been there long enough to see the city’s sidewalks, shops, bars, and buildings begin to change. For a couple of years, I lived in Humboldt Park, just west of Western Avenue, on the border of the Ukrainian Village. It was Humboldt Park in 2001-2003 that set the template for my personal Chicago—for the city as I experienced it, and the city that resides in my mind and heart. I love to bore people with stories about the great jukebox and horrible bathrooms at Tuman’s before its makeover, or about how almost all of the restaurants and boutiques along the stretch of Division between Western and Ashland are newcomers as far as I’m concerned (never mind that by now some of them have been there for several years, and have enjoyed lengthier tenancies than the businesses they replaced). These vanished places mean so much to me not so much because of any specific qualities they might have had, but instead because they were central to my experience of Chicago at a particular point in my life. A big city changes extremely rapidly, and people change rapidly, too. Thinking about the city as you remember it is a means of remembering the person you were at that time, and it’s a way to stop and marvel at all the changes you’ve undergone in the time since.

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead writes:

There are unheralded tipping points, a certain number of times that we will unlock the front door of an apartment. At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn’t even know it. You didn’t know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.

Now that I’ve moved away from Chicago, the above passage strikes me as all the more poignant. When Lura and I moved out of our apartment in Logan Square, where we lived for three years, we were so busy with (and exhausted from) the process of repainting the walls and emptying the place out that we almost lost track of the emotional significance of the moment. Lura had to stop me at the door so we could spend one last moment in the space where we’d lived for so long, and commemorate the life we’d led together there. It’s very important, I think, for a city dweller to pause to experience this kind of moment whenever possible. After moving to Ravenswood, we would sometimes return to Logan Square to visit friends or return to our old haunts, but the experience was never the same: the neighborhood was now part of our past, and the changes that had happened there since we left weren’t our changes—they weren’t part of our experience of Chicago. And when we visited Ravenswood and other North Side neighborhoods this past Christmas, after having moved out of Chicago altogether, the experience was very similar: there was great pleasure in returning to the places we’d loved, but they were no longer our places.

Saint Paul is not yet my city; I simply haven’t lived in it long enough for its changes to have become part of my personal consciousness and memory of myself. It is possible to fall in love with a city overnight, but it takes years to really live in it—for that city to become part of not only who you are now, but also part of who you used to be.

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

March 2009
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